During her 12 years as East Tennessee State’s women’s soccer coach, Heather Henson made many trips to Nashville for Atlantic Sun Conference contests. Every time she came to Belmont, it seemed as if another campus building had popped up.
So when the head-coaching job at Belmont came open in early December after Lisa Howe’s controversial departure, Henson applied. Two months later, she arrived on the campus of which she was so fond and began preparing for her first season at the helm.
“I have seen the growth of the university through that time, through the construction of the parking garage, the Curb Center, the new pharmacy school,” Henson, a native of Dallas, said. “That has been an interesting thing, because of course from the opposition looking at it as, ‘Gosh, this school is progressing and is moving forward.’ Those are recruiting points as a college coach.”
Henson succeeds Howe, who was 52-48-16 in six years as head coach but left just a week after disclosing to her team that her same-sex partner was having a baby. Belmont released a statement saying it had reached a mutual agreement with Howe that it would be best to part ways.
Members of the team said Howe was fired. Student protests, demands from donors and alums, including music business executive Mike Curb, to reinstate Howe and national media attention from ESPN and The New York Times all followed. The saga resulted in a change to Belmont’s anti-discrimination policy: Less than a month ago, the words “sexual orientation” were added to protect students, faculty and staff.
Henson wasn’t blind to what was unfolding.
“Everybody found out about this opening,” she said. “People not in the soccer world knew about the position.”
Henson actually resigned from her post at ETSU days before Belmont had a vacancy. In a release issued by ETSU on Dec. 1, she was quoted as saying “At this point I think my approach and the approach of the administration is different, so I think it’s best both personally and professionally to examine new opportunities.”
The release also included a statement from ETSU athletics director Dave Mullins: “We are at a point where we believe our program can grow, flourish and compete year-in and year-out for conference championships. In the past, we have not reached this level of performance. Our hope is that our next coach can bring new ideas and strategies to make that happen.”
ETSU was 8-7-3 in 2010, and Henson was 79-117-20 in 12 years. She helped the Lady Buccaneers transition to the Atlantic Sun in 2005 and reach the conference playoffs seven times.
“I had been there for 12 years, and I went in to accomplish goals and make sure that program is in a better situation at the time I was ready to move on. I believe I accomplished those goals,” she said.
Belmont is Henson’s third head-coaching job. She also coached at High Point University (N.C.) from 1995-98, where she guided the program from Division II to the Division I level.
From her two previous stops, Henson, a 1994 graduate of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, understands how tough it can be for players to adjust to a new coach — and vice versa. She also knows the unique set of circumstances that accompany this move; many of Howe’s players were outspoken and upset about her departure.
“I think that any player that has their head coach not at that school anymore, it’s hard,” she said. “If you’ve built the relationship with your coach, and that player-coach relationship is strong and it is a trusting relationship, it’s hard to see that coach leave — if it’s retirement or anything. I expect that.
“I think this group has human feelings. But I think they also came to play soccer, and they want to put their heart into soccer, into showing how strong Belmont soccer can be.”
Henson wouldn’t delve into what sort of long-term goals she has for her new program. She instead is focused on the immediate future. That means getting her husband, Chris, who is currently the assistant athletic director for private giving at ETSU, and 4-year-old daughter Callie moved to Nashville.
On a professional level, it means meeting individually with her players and her assistant coaches, Kyle Roelke and Andy Stoots. She did not say whether she would retain Roelke, a Belmont grad who just finished his third year with the program, or Stoots, who just wrapped up his first season here but spent the previous six on Henson’s staff at ETSU.
Belmont is coming off a 5-11 season, and while Henson and the Bruins want to win, she cautions that it’s a process.
“Every team has their opportunity to grow, and I think what we’re doing this spring is looking at where are the parts of our game that we want to improve on,” she said.
“For me, it’s about moving forward, and it’s about putting Belmont women’s soccer where they need to be.”